What is the current state of 3D printing technology?
3D printing is the transforming manufacturing into a digital technology for the first time, moving us from an analog to a digital realm. This changes all the rules of the game. It changes who is in control, because analog manufacturing requires big companies to produce large quantities of the same good. These companies need to have the capital to deploy these large quantities and an understanding of which goods will be economically viable. Analog manufacturing requires market research, prototyping, focus group research, and the supply chain and retail channels to distribute products.
How does the transition to digital manufacturing change the rules of the game?
The most important change is to who controls the decision of which products to launch. If you have access to 3D software, which is free these days, you can decide your own product. With access to a platform like Shapeways, you can work with designers, customize existing products, and ultimately decide what will go live. The second massive change will involve a shift from a handful of products that sell in the millions to millions of products that sell by the handful. The other important change will be the disappearance of the time for people to learn that our products are viable. The cycle of making a product available and really testing it in the market will go from years to days.
Are there any historical examples of this type of significant transformation?
If we look back over the last 10 years, we saw the rise of the home printer, which everybody now calls the desktop printer. This inspired hundreds of companies that many people though would enable consumers to participate in the digital manufacturing space. We now know that this hasn’t completely materialized, for the very reason that consumers are not looking for a tool but they’re looking for a service. That’s why Shutterfly and Vistaprint exist, for example.
The desktop 3D printer is a tool, but it’s not a final product that it outputs. You still need to use software to prepare it and you need to run the machine. While that is fun for a group of people, I don’t think it has mass appeal. If you look at the big desktop printer manufacturers, 80-85% of their printers are sold to businesses and schools. In comparison, we now have close to a million people using Shapeways, the vast, vast majority of whom are consumers using our platform for themselves, not to run a business.How does this compare to the rise of 3D printing technology?
What types of innovation are you trying to bring to 3D printing?
If you look at the industrial machines that have much higher quality output and capabilities far beyond the desktop printer, innovations have been very limited over the last 10-20 years. The companies behind these machines believe that their business model was mostly in prototyping and haven’t seen the consumer market in front of them. In 2014, I spoke with HP about the market’s need for a machine with vastly superior quality, faster printing speeds, and much lower cost. We started working together and today are the first customer of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion machine.
Have you noticed a significant difference between HP’s technology and its predecessors?
Yes, the machine is 10 times faster and, as a result, 10 times cheaper than other industrial 3D printers. Currently it works with nylon, but HP has a roadmap to expand to multiple types of plastic and other materials including ceramics. They’ve leveraged their expansive knowledge of inkjet technology to develop a machine that combines layers of powder with jetting agents to control the material properties of final product.
Are HP’s competitors trying to enter the landscape as well?
Since late 2014, when HP first started talking about this technology, other large corporate entities have hurried to get into the market as well. Toshiba has announced and launched a metal printer, while Canon and others are rumored to enter the market as well. On the other hand, investors are finally becoming comfortable with giving large amounts of money to new startups that are trying to fundamentally change the 3D printing landscape. I’m reminded of the early days of the internet when the technology started to go mainstream as huge amounts of money were put towards improving ease of use and capabilities.
What is the most exciting potential impact you expect 3D printing to have?
In general, our customers are going to benefit tremendously. As the technology improves, we will become increasingly capable of delivering a service that makes our users more and more happy. In the end, 3D printing will become much more relevant to people’s lives. 3D scanning and 3D printing of people might be the first killer app for 3D printing. People will be able to take 3D pictures, to scan and print figurines of family members, which will draw a huge emotional reaction.
Do you expect this evolution of 3D printing to transform manufacturing geographically?
I think one of the most exciting prospects of 3D printing is the ability to make manufacturing local again. Shapeways has a factory in New York, which is doing very well, economically speaking. This means we can build and run a factory anywhere, which take the benefits of 3D printing to the next level by solving a number of large problems. I’ve read that 10% of all crude oil is consumed by container ships that travel back and forth between the U.S., Asia, and Europe. The ability to bring manufacturing local will provide a way to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. If you add the benefits of timeliness cost reduction, and the freedom to print multiple materials and properties, you start understand the impact 3D printing can have on society.
In the past two or three years, 3D printing has drawn a lot of public excitement and attention. Do you think the technology has caught up to the hype?
Typically, when people hear about a new technology that they don’t fully understand, they start to think the technology is already capable of doing anything and everything. Unfortunately, while the technology has significant potential, it’s by no means perfect. We’ve seen the public lose interest with the realization that 3D printing is by no means in its final generation. But the innovation curve, which was almost flat, is now starting to lift and lift.
What does the near future look like for Shapeways and 3D printing in general?
I don’t know what the technology will look like in three years, but it will be substantially better than where it is today, and the rate of innovation will be substantially higher as well. We’re starting to see the creation of value, and I’m positive that 3D printing has an enormous future. With a lot of the initial hype behind us, I think the landscape right now is analogous to the end of winter, when it seems like nature is dead. In reality, under the soil so many things are happening. Within weeks, the trees are suddenly green again, the flowers are up and blooming, and you wonder, “Where did that come from?”
This article was written by Josh Wolfe from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.